Stop law enforcement violence against women of color & trans people of color!
Building on the Critical Resistance-INCITE! Statement on Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex, which calls on social justice movements to develop strategies and analysis that address both state and interpersonal violence, in 2005 INCITE! launched a national project on law enforcement violence against women of color and transgender people of color.
We have brought together national and local groups working on police brutality as it impacts women and trans people of color to develop the project, and, in collaboration with our partners at Critical Resistance,Creative Interventions, The October 22nd Coalition, Prison Moratorium Project, BlackOut, Southwest Youth Collaborative, Audre Lorde Project, FIERCE!, Coalición de Derechos Humanos, Sex Workers’ Project, Community United Against Violence (CUAV), Sylvia Rivera Law Project,Communities Against Rape & Abuse (CARA), Young Women’s Empowerment Project, Research For Revolution (RFR), and INCITE! chapter members, we have put together a toolkit for organizers working to address police brutality and violence against women and trans people of color.
Why a project on law enforcement violence?
Law enforcement violence against women of color and trans people of color is largely invisible in discussions about police brutality. Similarly, discussions about “violence against women” rarely, if ever, meaningfully address violence perpetrated by law enforcement officers. As a result, police brutality against women of color and trans people of color is often unacknowledged, leaving our voices largely unheard and our experiences unaddressed.
Yet since the arrival of European colonists on this continent and the creation of slave patrols — the first state-sponsored law enforcement agencies in the U.S. — Native, Black, Latina, Asian, and Arab women and girls have been and continue to be harassed, profiled, strip searched, body cavity searched, raped, beaten, and murdered by agents of the state on a systematic basis. Such abuses remain widespread and entrenched across the country, in the context of the “war on drugs,” policing of sex and sex work, the “war of terror,” “quality of life,” “zero tolerance” and “broken windows” policing.
In addition to breaking the silence around law enforcement violence against women of color and trans people of color, we focus on violence by police and other law enforcement agents for two main reasons:
- First, to foreground the central role of law enforcement in the prison-industrial complex – they represent the front lines of the criminal injustice system, and are often primarily responsible for determining who will be targeted for heightened surveillance and policing, enforcing systemic oppressions based on race, gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, immigration status, class and ability, and feeding people into the prison-industrial complex.
- Second, because mainstream responses to violence against women have relied almost exclusively on the police to protect us from violence, when in fact, police not only often fail to protect women of color and trans folks of color from interpersonal and community violence, they often perpetrate further violence against us, including when responding to calls for help.
What is “law enforcement violence”?
We use the term “law enforcement violence” to reflect an analysis that includes police brutality by local, state and federal police, as well as immigration enforcement officers, Border Patrol, private security, and military forces. We use the terms “police brutality” and “law enforcement violence” alternatively to mean the same thing.
We focus on law enforcement violence experienced by women of color and trans people of color of all genders because we recognize that law enforcement agents police race and gender simultaneously, and deem gender non-conformity, be it through acts or expression, a sign of disorder to be punished. As the political group TransJustice asserts, “Gender policing, like race-based policing, has always been part of this nation’s bloody history.”
We integrate an analysis of militarism because of the close collaboration between military and police forces in the “U.S.” and abroad, which involves sharing tactics, personnel, equipment, and targets, which include women and trans people of color at home and around the world.
INCITE! organizes to:
- Call attention to the urgent (though often invisible) problem to law enforcement violence against women of color and trans people of color.
- Collect stories from women of color and transgender people of color about their experiences with law enforcement violence to use as further evidence of how gender- and race-based oppression are used to target us.
- Build strong national networks among women of color and trans people of color organizers to strengthen our ongoing work addressing violence.
- Advocate for and develop community-based alternative responsesto addressing domestic and sexual violence so that survivors are not forced to rely on police and prisons.
- Make critical partnerships with groups organizing against police brutality and prisons to support a critical gender analysis when considering what police and prison violence looks like and how to end it; and with groups addressing “violence against women,” such as anti-domestic violence and anti-rape organizations, to use a critical race analysis and expand our notion of “violence against women” to include state-sponsored violence such as law enforcement violence.
- Make connections between all kinds of law enforcement (including local and state police; immigration enforcement such as ICE, Border Patrol, and Customs; Drug Enforcement Agents; the FBI; private security agents; and military forces) so that we better understand
- How local police collaborate with immigration police.
- How local police are often trained by military forces.
- How U.S. neighborhoods are actually occupied by military forces (such as in post-Katrina New Orleans.)
- How military violence abroad is connected to police and military violence in the U.S.
- How private security contractors play a critical role in the function and violence of law enforcement.
- Make connections between gender-policing and gender violence targeting transgender people of color and non-trans women of color
Share your story as a women of color and trans person of color who has experienced violence from law enforcement. Organize with a national network of women of color and trans people of color to connect and strengthen our work on law enforcement violence and community accountability. Document violence by police, immigration officers, customs, drug enforcement agents, and the military against women of color and trans people of color using interviews, video, and other forms of participatory action research (PAR).
Build coalitions between anti-police brutality/prison, immigrant rights, LGBT, and anti-violence grups to prioritize police brutality against women of color and trans people of color. For an example of coalitional work, visit the Critical Resistance-INCITE! Statement on Gender Violence and The Prison Industrial Complex.
Investigate ideas and tools for organizing community – based responses to violence in our homes and communities, such as domestic violence and sexual violence, so that we do not have to rely on police and prisons to create safety in our communities.
Collectively resist violence by law enforcement agents through base-building and direct action.
Anti-police violence organizing tool kit -organizing tools and fact sheets for organizers who want to continue to develop this work.
Detailed 8.5 x 28.5 anti-police violence brochure/poster – analysis of law enforcement violence against women and trans people of color as a critical intersection of gender violence and state violence.
– See more
A Latina butch lesbian arrested at a demonstration in New York City by cells holding men, telling her “you think you’re a man, I’ll put you in there and we’ll see what happens to you.”
“Gender policing, like race based policing, has always been part of this nation’s bloody history.” — TransJustice, Call to First Annual Trans Day of Action for Social and Economic Justice, 2005
Law enforcement agencies not only enforce systemic power relations based on race through racial profiling, race-based policing, and targeting of communities of color, they also police gender lines, and enforce dominant racialized gender norms. Yet, the gendered aspects and manifestations of law enforcement violence are often invisible in organizing and advocacy against police brutality, and must be documented and addressed.
Enforcing the gender binary
Sometimes police enforcement of the gender binary – the notion that there are only two genders, male and female, with specific conduct and appearance mandated for each – is obvious. For instance, up until just a few decades ago, cops used to enforce what were known as “sumptuary laws,” which required individuals to wear “gender appropriate” clothing, and subjected people to arrest for “impersonating” another gender. Today, such regulations remain in effect in prisons, and are enforced through disciplinary infractions and punitive segregation. And, they still inform law enforcement conduct – for instance, the New York City Police Department’s current arrest paperwork still has a box to check for “impersonating a female.”
Additionally, police requests for identification, which may not match a person’s gender identity, often lead to presumptions that transgender people are fraudulent, deceitful, or inherently suspicious, as well as to verbal abuse and harassment, physical abuse, and invasive and abusive searches to satisfy an officer’s curiosity, humiliate, or assign an individual a gender based on their genital status.
Punishing gender non-conformity
Sometimes gender policing is not so obvious, but is just as profound and devastating. In the highly discretionary world of policing, people who do not conform to gender norms are perceived by law enforcement officers as “disorderly,” suspicious, threatening, violent, fraudulent, deceitful, or mentally unstable because of their perceived gender disjuncture, and are therefore routinely profiled, harassed, and arbitarily arrested for vague offenses such as “disorderly conduct.” They are also subjected to transphobic and homophobic verbal abuse and punishment, in the form of physical violence, for failure to “comply” with prevalent norms of gender identity and expression.
Policing Native Women & Native Two Spirit and Trans People
The American Friends Service Committee reports that Native women in small communities in Maine were routinely profiled as prescription drug abusers, and, as a result, when detained in a Maine jail were routinely forced to undergo visual body cavity searches, which require women to bend over and expose their genital areas to officers, often while being subjected by sexualized and racist verbal abuse, as a matter of policy, while similarly situated white women were not. Native women organized and were successful in obtaining changes to the jail search policy and access to Native people detained in the jail.
Native peoples’ experiences of law enforcement violence are often completely erased from mainstream discussions of police brutality and immigrant rights. Yet, since the arrival of the first colonists on this continent, Native women and Native Two Spirit, transgender and gender nonconforming people have been subjected to untold violence at the hands of U.S. military forces, as well as local, state and federal law enforcement. Movement of Native peoples across borders with Canada and Mexico has been severely restricted, often by force, separating families and communities. The notion of “policing” was forced on sovereign nations and cultures that had previously resolved disputes within communities.
Gender specific forms of law enforcement and military violence against Native women and gender nonconforming people have included:
- Mutilation – US military soldiers would cut off the breasts and vulvas of Native women after massacring entire communities;
- Rape and sexual assault – in fact, as noted by Andrea Smith in her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, rape and sexual violence have been integral weapons of genocide and colonialism in the Americas;
- Reproductive trauma and disease resulting from U.S. military testing and operations;
- Forcible removal – often by law enforcement and military officers – from families and communities to Indian Residential schools, where Native children were subjected to verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, cultural and spiritual abuse and neglect;
- Use of law enforcement to prevent women and Two Spirit/gender nonconforming Native people from accessing and practicing traditional healing and spirituality;
- Failure to protect Native women from sexual violence at the hands of non-Natives, as detailed in the recent Amnesty International Report Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Violence.
Many these violations and their after effects persist in similar forms today. According to Amnesty International: “There have been complaints of brutality and discriminatory treatment of Native Americans both in urban areas and on reservations. Complaints include indiscriminate brutal treatment of [N]ative people, including elders and children, during mass police sweeps of tribal areas following specific incidents, and failure to respond to crimes committed against Native Americans on reservations.”
Additionally, Native women and Native Two Spirit, transgender, and gender nonconforming people are subjected to gender specific forms of law enforcement violence, such as racial profiling, physical abuse, and sexual violence.
For instance, at an October 2003 Amnesty International hearing on racial profiling held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Geneva Horse Chief reported frequent traffic stops, during which no citations would be written, of cars with tribal license plates. Native women are also profiled as drug users, alcohol abusers, and as bad mothers.
For Native women, calling on law enforcement for protection from violence is often not seen as an option due to mistrust of law enforcement officials, given the US government’s continuing role as the perpetrator of genocide against Native peoples, as well as its ongoing failure to take action to protect reservation-based Native women from violence at the hands of non-Indians. For more information, check out Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Violence.
Policing Sex Work
According to Amnesty International, “One Native transgender woman involved in the sex trade told Amnesty researchers “every night I’m taken into an alley and given the choice between having sex or going to jail.” Her experience was representative of that of many sex workers we spoke with. An advocate for LGBT youth in Chicago told Amnesty that the vast majority of young people she works with have been asked to perform sexual acts on police officers, sometimes on duty and other times not, who suspect they are involved in sex work.”
Who is a sex worker?
“Sex worker” is a term used to refer to people who work in all aspects of the sex trades, indoor or street-based, legal and criminalized, and can include people who trade sex for money as well as safety, drugs, hormones, survival needs like food shelter or clothing, or immigration status or documentation. Although this gendered labor sector is being redefined all over the world, the majority of sex workers are women. Sex workers are mothers, daughters/sons, teachers, organizers, people — who experience high levels of violence due to the stigma, isolation, and invisibility associated with their work.
Since prostitution/sex work is criminalized and highly stigmatized in many countries, individual sex workers and organizations are exposed to high levels of harassment and violence by law enforcement agents and benefit from little protection from violence within their communities. Speaking out against the violence and finding or organizing support for sex workers can be dangerous. As a result, any participation in sex work as part-time, full-time, or even temporary entails a life on the margins. This is particularly true for sex workers of color and transgender and gender non-conforming sex workers, who live and work at the intersections of multiple forms of structural oppression based on gender, race, and class.
Violence against sex workers
Sex workers experience high levels of violence, regardless of the type of sex work they engage in. Sex workers are exposed to verbal abuse, physical assaults, sexual violence, and murder at the hands of law enforcement agents, customers, managers, fellow employees, family, friends, domestic partners, and neighborhood residents. Existing laws that criminalize sex work often prevent workers from reporting violence, enable law enforcement agents to not take violence against sex workers seriously when it is reported, and facilitate police violence against sex workers.
Sex work as violence against women?
Despite the fact that sex workers experience high levels of violence, sex workers’ rights have generally not been supported by mainstream women’s movements. Historically, because women’s bodies and sexualities have been a location of women’s oppression, many feminists have framed sex work itself a form of violence against women, and demonized women who engage in sex work as participants in their own oppression and that of all women. In response, sex workers’ rights groups urge a distinction between coerced and consensual sex work,. For instance, many sex workers who attended the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing lobbied to ensure that every mention of prostitution as a form of violence against women be prefaced by the word “forced.” Although many acknowledge that the voluntary/forced dichotomy is insufficient to reflect the complexity of sex workers’ experiences, it was all they could do to change the discourse at the conference and beyond. Unfortunately, sex work continues to be framed as inherently oppressive by many mainstream groups, effectively hampering sex workers’ efforts to secure their human rights.
Police brutality against sex workers
Officers use vaguely worded “quality of life” regulations prohibiting, among many other things, “loitering” and “loitering with intent to solicit,” as well as “obstructing vehicular traffic,” “public lewdness,” “public nuisance,” and “disorderly conduct,” to harass, detain, and arrest individuals they believe to be involved in sex work, and particularly street-based sex work.
Women of color, and particularly transgender women of color, are often perceived by police through racialized and gendered stereotypes framing us as highly sexualized and sexually available. Law enforcement officers’ internalization and perpetuation of these stereotypes, combined with the high degree of discretion afforded by vague “quality of life” regulations, results in police profiling women of color, and particularly transgender women of color, as sex workers, and selective targeting of women of color for harassment, detention, and arrest.
Sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape
Sex workers, as well as those perceived to be engaged in sex work based on gender or sexual non-conformity, are raped and sexually harassed and abused by law enforcement officers with alarming frequency – and this takes place across the country.
- A 2002 study found that 30% of exotic dancers and 24 % of street-based sex workers who had been raped identified a police officer as the rapist. Approximately 20 % of other acts of sexual violence reported by study participants were committed by the police.
- According to two studies by the Sex Workers’ Project of the Urban Justice Center in New York City, up to 17% of sex workers interviewed reported sexual harassment and abuse, including rape, by police.
- Sex workers across the country report being forced to strip or engage in other sexual conduct while in police detention.
Extortion of sexual acts in exchange for avoiding arrest or further violence, public strip searches, physical violence, as well as overtly sexist homophobic, racist and transphobic verbal abuse of sex workers by police officers is an all too common experience for indoor and street-based sex workers.
Failure to respond to violence against sex workers
Law enforcement officers’ perceptions of sex workers also lead to inappropriate and abusive treatment by officers in the context of responses to sexual or domestic violence. Domestic violence and sexual assault against sex workers are routinely perceived by police as a “trick gone bad,” something that survivors somehow brought on themselves through their “sexually deviant” conduct. For instance, in many cases women who are or are perceived to be sex workers are arrested for assault or domestic violence while their abusers are not. Overall, sex worker advocates characterize police attitudes towards survivors of domestic violence who are, or are perceived to be, sex workers as “who cares, they’re expendable” or “what did you expect? You’re a ho!”